Era. Saravanan, a long-time Junior Vikatan hand, makes his debut as director with Kathukutty. It’s one of those stories where a wastrel son (Arivazhagan, played by Narain) redeems himself in the eyes of his concerned father (Santhanam, played by Bharathiraja’s dead-ringer brother, Jayaraj) – but with a twist. The arena is politics. Santhanam has been with a party for over forty years, and he thinks he will be asked to contest in the assembly elections, but the party higher-ups decide that in this age of social media, it’s better to nominate a younger man. And Arivazhagan is chosen to compete against another youth, whose name – Vasanth Balakrishnan – makes it amply clear, at least in Tamil cinema, that he doesn’t stand a chance. If you recall the fates of VIP’s Arun Subramaniam and Thani Oruvan’s Siddharth Abhimanyu, you’ll know this is not a spoiler.
We don’t get too many movies about youth politics. In these cynical times, it’s nice, at least in fiction, to see idealistic men and women saying they’ll be the change. (That’s why Mudhalvan worked so well. We all warmed to the wish-fulfilment.) But Kathukutty struggles between wanting to show Michael from Aayidha Ezhuthu and having to show the kind of youth today’s Tamil cinema apparently mandates. Arivazhagan, like Michael, is a brain – an M.Sc. gold medallist. And like Michael, he’s committed to his cause. He prefers to stay in his Thanjavur village and be a farmer. Only, we don’t see him being much of a farmer. For the longest time, the closest he comes to irrigation is at the local bar. Like many Tamil films these days, Kathukutty doubles as a commercial for pickle. Another side dish comes in the form of ‘Kadhal’ Sandhya, who’s begun to do item numbers where she’s referred to as “Bombay pappali.” But the director has guts. He gives Arivazhagan’s grandmother this line: “Unagala ellam andha TASMAC dhaan naasamaakkudhu.” I don’t recall another Tamil film openly denouncing this government-run organisation whose outlets have practically taken over the hero’s-best-friend character.
Era. Saravanan’s roots as a journalist are evident. He isn’t much of a director yet, but he’s a grade-A denouncer. Kathukutty is dedicated to Nammalwar, the agriculturist who died in the midst of a campaign against a methane exploration project in the Cauvery delta. Saravanan continues the fight. He tells us – through an animated stretch – why methane exploration is poison for agriculture, how it ruins the soil. The film’s timing is uncanny. Just a few days ago, the state banned methane exploration in delta districts. (See report here.) Saravanan talks about the evils of cell-phone towers, the radiation from which destroys local fauna. He talks about farmers who find it difficult to get loans, and whose lands are sold off as “real estate” through television ads featuring gaudy actresses. Saravanan even denounces God. A character says something like, Stop hoping that God will take care of things and try to do something yourself.
But Kathukutty doesn’t do enough to dramatise these issues. The film needed more scenes like the one in which Arivazhagan explodes when he hears an urban-type mock farmer suicides. The man says he’s sick of hearing about them, because the government gives these farmers rice – why don’t they just live on that? Arivazhagan yanks his shirt, pulls him close and tells him that these farmers aren’t dying because they cannot feed themselves, they’re dying because they can no longer feed others. What a great masala line. AR Murugadoss must be kicking himself that he didn’t think this up for Kaththi. This kind of sugar coating can really sell the bitter pill of a message – but the rest of the film is just one bitter message after another.
The emotions aren’t exploited either. A father whose dreams are shattered, who now has to work for his son (to ensure the latter’s election) who hasn’t spent a day in politics – this subtext stays as barren as the fields. You can understand if Kathukutty were a full-length comedy, but the director doesn’t shy away from drama, so why mute this dimension? Why downplay Arivazhagan’s efforts? Why not show him plotting, strategising to, say, win over the many people he has alienated with his loutishness? But the strong plot points keep you watching. Soori contributes solid laughs, and Narain – despite an accent that hints at his roots (“gam-bhee-ram”) – holds the film together. He has presence, and I kept wondering why we don’t see more of him. The romantic track (with Srushti Dange, who’s no one’s idea of a villager) is nicely done. Translation: the heroine has more to do than just show up for duets. But after a while, she’s coolly brushed aside. Yes, this story is about Arivazhagan’s entry into politics, but surely the heroine’s arc needs closure. A freeze-frame of an embrace, perhaps? This idealistic film is a fairy tale, after all. Why deny us the happily-ever-after?
- Kaththukkutti = novice
- Junior Vikatan = see here
- VIP = see here
- Thani Oruvan = see here
- Mudhalvan = see here
- Aayidha Ezhuthu = see here
- Kadhal = see here
- pappali = papaya
- “Unagala ellam andha TASMAC dhaan naasamaakkudhu.” = You kids have been ruined by TASMAC.
- Nammalwar = see here
- Kaththi = see here
- “gam-bhee-ram” = majesty
An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2015 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.